Tattooing is an ancient practice that is present in various cultures around the world.
Tattoos in different cultures
The oldest evidence of a tattooed person is a Neolithic hunter of about 5,300 years old named Ötzi, found in 1991 on a glacier between Austria and Italy. Ötzi had 61 tattoos on different parts of his body, and after having been studied by different scientists it was concluded that he suffered from arthritis, so the tattoos could have had a magical-healing meaning. These tattoos are also believed to have been made from soot.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of tattoos, the word "tattoo" is believed to derive from the Samoan word Tatau. This word does not have a direct translation, since its meaning requires context and prior knowledge of Polynesian history and culture in general, but after making contact with this culture the Europeans incorrectly pronounced and documented the word Tatau as "tattoo" in relation to the permanent body art practice that was traditional on the island.
Tattooing is not a practice that arose in a particular place and then spread to the rest of the planet, around 49 pieces of evidence of mummies and remains of tattooed bodies have been found in different parts of the world. The list of countries with a history related to tattooing is incredibly long. In order to give an overview of the birth and evolution of it in different parts of the world, we have selected some cultures as examples.
As we mentioned earlier, the word “tattoo” is believed to be derived from the word Tatau. Tattoos have been part of Samoan culture for thousands of years, and it is closely linked to their social culture. This practice is inherited from father to son, takes many years to learn, and is done with techniques (by hand) and materials (made with turtle shells, wild boar bones, and wood) that have remained almost exactly the same for millennia. Traditional tattoos for men are known as pe’a.
These tattoos are incredibly painful, and the process can take weeks to complete. They are performed in ceremonies to mark the promotion of a younger Chief (known as ali'i). These tattoos symbolize their resistance and commitment to cultural traditions. The risk of infection with this technique is very high. Not putting up with the pain and leaving the tattoo halfway done means a great shame for the whole family of the young man.
Traditional tattoos for women are known as malu. These tattoos go from below the knees to the buttocks, and sometimes on the hands and stomach. Designs are finer and more delicate than men's. Initially, these tattoos were only worn by the Chief's daughter. Today, malu is worn more as a token of Samoan identity, rather than a specific status symbol.
The Māori, native people of New Zealand, practiced Tā moko. This technique, similar to the Tautau of the Samoa, was a symbol of social status. Receiving a moko was an important step between childhood and adulthood, and was accompanied by different rites. In addition, these tattoos increased the attractiveness of whoever wore them for the opposite sex. Men generally wore them on the face, buttocks and thighs. Women, on the lips and chin. Unlike a regular tattoo, moko were made with chisels (made mainly from albatross bones), so the skin healed with grooves instead of being smooth. Currently, the practice of Tā moko is re-emerging as a sign of cultural identity, although most of these new tattoos are done with a regular machine.
Mummies have been found suggesting that the tattoo technique was practiced in Egypt as early as 2000 B.C. The reason for these tattoos is not yet confirmed. Some theories affirm that it was for aesthetic reasons, while others think that they could have been carried out as medicinal treatments. An interesting fact is that the evidence seems to indicate that tattoos were only performed on women. The mummy of Hathor's priestess, Amunet, was found with different tattoos on her body, which consist mainly of lines and dots. It seems like the first man to receive a tattoo in Egypt appears to have been Nubian during the Mesolithic period.
Tattooed mummies have been found in various cemeteries in China, dating from 2100 B.C. to 500 B.C. Historically, tattoos in China (and much of Asia) had a negative connotation. In the old days, in folklore tales, bandits wore tattoos. It was also normal to mark convicts with a 囚 (“prisoner”) on the face, so the rest of society knew that they couldn't trust that individual.
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